Shortage of Alaska straw forces mushers to pay more -- way more

Posted: Tuesday, October 03, 2000

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Alaska mushers could be facing a pricey winter when it comes to finding bedding and insulation for their dogs.

A poor growing season and early snow in Delta Junction, the state's main straw producer, have resulted in a severe shortage of straw. That's forcing area feed stores to import it from Outside, and it's costing everyone a bundle -- as much as $20 a bale.

With temperatures dipping below freezing and the first snow on the ground, Manley musher Joee Redington figured it was time to get some straw for his 80-plus sled dogs.

What he didn't figure on was what he would have to pay to get it.

''It's pretty unbelievable,'' said Redington, loading one of the four bales he bought Monday for $20 apiece at Alaska Feed onto his truck. ''I don't think this has ever happened.''

In Fairbanks, the going rate for an 80-pound bale of Washington straw is $20, up from $6.50 for a 40-pound bale of Delta straw last year.

''It's a hard call,'' said Connie Dubay at Cold Spot Feeds, which sells about 4,000 bales of straw a year, mainly to mushers.

''People hate spending $20 a bale on straw, but the fact is there just isn't anything else.

''We aren't gouging anybody by any means,'' she said, adding that the Washington bales are twice as heavy as those produced in Alaska. ''This is the hand we've been dealt.''

People living in remote villages must pay $60 to get a bale of straw shipped to the Bush, Dubay told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. The bales are too big to send whole so they have to be cut in half to be shipped.

It costs $20 to ship a half bale of straw to a 997 zip code, she said.

The $20 price tag didn't stop people from snapping up Dubay's first load of Washington straw last week, however.

''We just got the first batch in and we're already sold out,'' she said.

Another load wasn't scheduled to arrive until next week and Dubay was referring customers to Alaska Feed, which is importing the same Washington state straw and selling it for the same price.

''It's going quickly,'' said Alaska Feed owner John Underwood, whose store sells about 3,000 bales a year, the bulk of which goes to pet owners.

With temperatures dipping to 60-degrees below zero, straw is a requirement for dog owners in Alaska, especially mushers. They use it as insulation in dog houses and in dog boxes on trucks used to transport dogs to races. Many long-distance races require mushers to have straw to bed down their dogs at checkpoints.

''It's just like food; you gotta have that, too,'' said Fairbanks sprint musher Curtis Erhart. ''It's part of the deal.''

Erhart, who goes through about 100 bales of straw per winter, will be using hay to keep his 130 dogs warm this winter.

''I got a bunch of hay delivered in June,'' Erhart said. ''I got a good deal. Me, Charlie Boulding and my dad (Lester Erhart). We all got set up this summer.''

Barley farmers in Delta Junction normally provide the bulk of the straw sold in Alaska, but poor growing conditions this summer and a foot of snow last week left many farmers out in the cold. They were able to harvest a good chunk of their barley, but they didn't have time to bale up the stems that were left behind for straw.

There was no straw to be had at Underdog Feeds in Wasilla on Monday.

''I ordered a load today out of Oregon,'' said owner J.P. Norris. He will charge $10- to $12 for a 55-pound bale.

Norris supplies dozens of mushers in the Matanuska and Susitna valleys with straw for their dogs. Last year, he bought 5,000 bales from the Delta.

There are alternatives to straw, Norris said. Some mushers use shavings, sawdust or hay to put in dog boxes and houses.

''Shavings work quite well in dog boxes and it's considerably cheaper,'' Norris said. ''I think mushers probably have a few options other than buying straw at $20 a bale.''

Dubay and Underwood said the straw from Washington state is top quality, but Underwood agreed that $20 a bale was a steep price to pay.

''We're talking about something you could get for $2 a bale if you picked it up in a field from the states,'' he said.

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